Uptick expected in business and leisure travel in 2012March 28, 2012 6:00 AM
by Elizabeth Cooper
Many of Virginia’s major resorts and hotels are doing some spring cleaning as they prepare for the busy summer travel season. Some are sprucing up with fresh paint and room décor, while others are undergoing major physical renovations and adding more family activities. Still others, including Keswick Hall in Albemarle County and The Founders Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach, are welcoming new owners or management teams.
The upshot: Lots of changes will be in place by the warm summer months.
The Homestead in Bath County, long known for its championship golf courses and genteel Southern hospitality, is adding miniature golf and a family oriented water area with slides, a pool and cabanas. Kingsmill also is adding a family pool complex. Meanwhile, The Boar’s Head in Charlottesville and several Northern Virginia hotels are upgrading rooms and technology.
And, in Virginia Beach, the $32 million Oceanaire Resort & Conference Center is prepping for a summer opening. Local developer Gold Key/PHR is adding an 18-story, mixed-use time-share/hotel as Phase II of the oceanfront Ocean Beach Club & Resort.
At the older resorts, the trend behind the upgrades is family friendly. As Peter Faraone, The Homestead’s general manager, says of his property’s $25 million multifaceted transformation: “There will be more things for families to do when meetings take place, which in turn encourages more meetings.”
Recent forecasts from companies indicate that business and leisure travel will increase in 2012. Smith Travel Research, a Hendersonville, Tenn., firm that tracks supply and demand for the hotel industry, indicates that hotels — particularly those at the high end — are poised to make a strong comeback this year.
One of the drivers behind the rosier picture is an expected uptick in business travel bookings. They are expected to match or exceed total bookings for 2011, according to Travel Leaders, a Plymouth, Minn.,-based company that conducts an annual survey. “Organizations are once again choosing resort destinations. It is anticipated to be a gradual, slow growth,” says Pat Burnette, marketing and communications manager for The Boar’s Head in Charlottesville.
Since the 2008-09 recession led to cutbacks in off-site meetings and conferences, the 483-room Homestead in Bath County saw a change in its clientele. “There’s a lot more family travel,” says Faroane. “People are taking shorter vacations with more frequency, and when we surveyed our guests, number one on the things they wanted was more outdoor water features.”
In response, the Homestead is building Allegheny Springs, a two-acre attraction including a children’s pool and beach, three 100-foot waterslides, a 400-foot lazy river and a family pool with a heated deck. For adults, a new Spa and Wellness Center will offer services using the resort’s famed hot springs. In addition, the resort’s new Jefferson’s Grill restaurant will feature a farm-to-table menu.
The resort also is developing Mini Cascades, an 18-hole miniature golf course, to go with its three golf courses. “We’re giving every age group something to do,” Faraone says.
Across the state in Williamsburg, Kingsmill Resort launched a long-term, $6 million expansion and upgrade after Xanterra Resorts purchased it in August 2010. The Denver-based company unveiled a 10-year master plan for Kingsmill last summer, including renovations and potential real estate development. “These are the very first phases of it,” says Kingsmill General Manager Robin Carson.
The seasonal Marina Bar and Grille was demolished, replaced by a two-story restaurant with indoor seating and a full kitchen. Scheduled to open in May, James Landing Grille will be among the few on the James River.
Kingsmill also is building a family swimming pool complex complete with an activity pool, lazy river, slide and poolside grill and cabana. Like The Homestead, Kingsmill’s renovations are largely driven by families’ wish lists. “Kingsmill is a destination resort,” Carson says, “but we believed we needed to increase the number of activities we offer for families.”
In the future, Kingsmill plans to add a 210-room hotel featuring a golf pro shop, meeting rooms, a restaurant, lounge and wedding venue. With new owners on board, the time was right to refurbish the 28-year-old resort. “That’s how you keep people coming back,” says Carson.
That was the rationale behind The Boar’s Head’s recent renovation. Before starting with improvements in March 2011, its owner — the University of Virginia Foundation — spent a year on historical research and extensive brainstorming sessions with employees, managers, guests and local government officials. Along with cosmetic upgrades to the buildings, the inn also refurbished common areas and guest rooms.
Nearby another historic property, Keswick Hall at Monticello, came under new ownership in January. The Riverstone Group LLC, a family-owned company based in Richmond, purchased the inn, along with other Keswick amenities, from Orient-Express Hotels Inc. The Riverstone Group owns and operates several other resorts including The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond and Kiawah Island Golf Resort in Kiawah Island, S.C.
Set amid more than 600 acres in Albemarle County, Keswick is a 48-room, Tuscan-style villa ranked by readers of Condé Nast Magazine as the country’s No. 1 small resort. “It really is a special, special property,” says Joseph Longo, vice president and managing director of The Jefferson Hotel and Keswick Hall. “It’s a perfect fit for the company’s portfolio of hotels and resorts.”
Given Keswick’s proximity to The Jefferson, guests can choose a “town and country package” allowing them to experience two distinct central Virginia destinations. “Guests can spend a night or two at The Jefferson, and less than 50 minutes away, they can enjoy everything Keswick has to offer,” Longo says. The resort also will continue to market itself to meeting planners.
Business travelers are one reason bookings are up at the Founders Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach. “There has been a tremendous upswing in corporate business,” says Lester Scott, the inn’s general manager. Founders has bookings into 2014 as companies gain more confidence in the growing economy.
Scott came on board last May when Atlanta-based Capella Hotel Group took over as the inn’s management team. Founded by Horst Schulze, retired vice chairman of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., Capella is known as a service leader in the luxury hotel market.
Bringing that reputation to the Founders Inn, Capella authorizes all staff members to address guest concerns. “If a guest mentions to his server at breakfast that there is a problem with his room, the server can comp breakfast or take a room night off his bill — whatever ensures the guest is happy,” Scott says. “Our goal is to move guests from being happy with our service to guests being loyal to us.”
Opened in 1991, The Founders Inn underwent a renovation in late 2010, but Scott says additional upgrades in bedding and guest room baths are being explored, as well as updates to the facility’s audio/visual system. “We need to stay ahead of the growing demand of the corporate travel market,” he adds.
That’s also the case with hotels in Alexandria where nearly $400 million has been invested in new properties and renovations. The city’s 3.3 million annual visitors spend $657 million. “It’s an important industry to us,” notes Claire Mouledoux, communications manager for the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have a combination of historical ambience with modern flair. People like the experience they can have here.”
Many of Alexandria’s 25 hotel properties have been refurbished or are in the midst of upgrades. The Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, the city’s largest meeting/conference center, completed $14 million in renovations in early 2012, including an overhaul of all 496 guestrooms. Embassy Suites is spending $10 million to create 4,225 square feet of new meeting space, along with 20 new suites and a health club. The finished product is scheduled to come on line in September. Meanwhile, the Holiday Inn Alexandria Southwest is undergoing a $3.2 million transformation as it shifts from a primarily leisure focus to a 50/50 business property.
In the end, however, it comes down to fulfilling guests’ wants and needs. As Keswick Hall’s Longo notes, “Expectations have increased, and hotels and resorts must consistently strive to exceed those expectations in order to differentiate themselves.”
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